Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell brought their opening act, Richard Thompson, back on stage with them Wednesday at Symphony Center for a well-deserved encore. Thompson melted in with the band for a while, then stepped out to trade guitar solos as Crowell’s “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” stretched out. With each turn on the instrument, Thompson found new harmonic avenues to explore and explode.
The show could’ve ended right then and there, but Crowell and Harris continued, two longtime friends celebrating some 40 years on the road as country diehards, neo-traditionalists singing in the church of the high and lonesome.
It’s a vocabulary known well to Thompson, a ‘60s rocker in London steeped in Scottish murder ballads and English folk-music drone. He ambled on stage in a black beret where an orchestra normally sits, backed by only two musicians, bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome. Yet he held what sounded like an entire orchestra at his fingertips.
When Thompson plays his guitar, he creates the illusion that at least four hands, maybe six, are working the strings. There is no better way to experience his playing than in the trio format, with Jerome and Prodaniuk carving up the rhythm and giving Thompson room to sail over the top, sometimes locking in with hard-rock riffs, sometimes compressing space with clusters of notes imported from the East, sometimes playing melody off against dissonance tag-team style up and down the fret board.
He wrapped notes like rusty barbed wire around “You Can’t Win” and brought muscular funk (Thompson does funk? Who knew?) by way of Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Underfoot” on “Stuck on the Treadmill.” He turned “Tear-Stained Letter” into a brief sing-along, then funneled a rockabilly solo through the abrasive jazz-blues of James “Blood” Ulmer.
His acoustic numbers were probably a better match for Crowell and Harris, particularly the finger-picked “1952 Vincent Black Lightening,” which suggested a British take on bluegrass. After the Thompson onslaught, the Crowell-Harris combo came off a little quaint at first, exacerbated by some technical difficulties, but picked up momentum once they started diving into the songs from their recent album, “Old Yellow Moon.”
Harris, the urban cowgirl in fringe, comes from the perspective of an East Coast folk singer who got a crash course in country from the late Gram Parsons that lasted a lifetime. Crowell, the black-hatted outsider from working-class Houston, was raised on Texas blues, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll and honky tonk. The two met and began performing together in the ‘70s, infusing country traditionalism with fresh influences, his sharply turned songs finding a broader audience thanks to Harris’ astute taste and heart-breaking vocals.
They performed some of the originals that fired their early work, including the haunted “Tulsa Queen” and the bereft “’Til I Gain Control Again,” shaded by a pedal-steel as mournful as a train whistle. They surveyed the country songs that broke the Nashville mold and inspired their careers: Harris took the lead on Townes Van Zandt’s melodious “Pancho and Lefty,” they paid homage to Parsons as they dueted on the Everly Brothers’ “Love Hurts,” and they brought some swing to Roger Miller’s down-and-almost-out “Invitation to the Blues.”
There was a lot of heartache in there, and Harris acknowledged that “Rodney and I love sad songs.” But Crowell’s “Stars on the Water” offered a respite, and Harris twirled around the stage as if her decades on the road were just getting started.